Introduction: A Passage of Controversy
The Epistle to the Hebrews focuses on the preeminence of Christ as our High Priest, but at multiple points along the way, the author cautions his readers about the dangers of leaving the Christian faith. Of these “warning passages” in Hebrews, Hebrews 6:4-6 is generally considered to be the most forceful and most troublesome. This passage has sparked debate for centuries, and its abuse is one of the reasons why Hebrews was left out of the canon of the church in the West for some time. On a surface level, Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to indicate that saved persons who commit apostasy and consciously turn away from their faith can permanently lose their salvation. This contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and is therefore the main issue around which battle lines are drawn in the discussion of this passage. Many claim this passage as evidence that salvation can indeed be lost, while those who adhere to Calvinist doctrine argue that these passages are not addressed to true believers, but instead to persons who have been exposed to Christianity but have ultimately rejected it.
In addition to these two major viewpoints, this paper will also present three of the more frequently discussed minority views, which help to give an idea of the different areas of contention and the wide array of interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 which are available.
The two major viewpoints generally agree on both the nature of the sin described in Heb. 6:4-6 and its consequences but differ as to the identity of the audience to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. The sin described as “fallen away” in Heb. 6:6 is generally interpreted as apostasy, or the “renunciation of the covenant relationship with God.” As Neil Lightfoot points out, this specific sin should be distinguished from the regular sins and shortcomings that are a part of our human nature: “Falling short is not the same as falling away. It is one thing to yield to sin contrary to the new life in Christ, it is another thing to abandon that new life altogether.”
The consequences of this sin are grave indeed, as Hebrews 6:4-6 states that it is “impossible” to restore such persons to repentance. Although many have tried to soften the force of “impossible” over the years, modern critics generally reject this approach, arguing that impossible means exactly what it says. F. F. Bruce does a good job of harmonizing these thoughts when he says, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.”
Having discussed the aspects of Hebrews 6:4-6 upon which the two major interpretations largely agree, we now turn to the area where disagreement arises: the audience to which the passage was written.
Once Saved, Now Lost
Many scholars believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers who are in danger of abandoning their faith and, as a result, losing the salvation they had received. Scot McKnight subscribes to this Saved and Lost interpretation, and supports his argument both with general evidence from throughout the epistle of Hebrews and also with a detailed analysis of the terms used to describe the audience in Hebrews 6:4-5. First, McKnight notes that the Hebrew writer at times identifies himself with the audience by using the first person plural pronoun “we,” and multiple times refers to his audience as “brothers.” These terms indicate that the author did not see his audience as insincere believers, but rather as fellow believers with whom he shares a spiritual relationship because of their common faith. In Hebrews 6:4-5 the Hebrew writer describes his audience as “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” McKnight points to these descriptions as further evidence, saying that collectively, they depict the conversions experienced by his audience. McKnight concludes, “Phenomenologically, the author believes [the audience] to be, and presents them as, believers in the fullest sense possible.” Speaking of this same descriptive passage, Grant R. Osborne puts it even more forcefully, saying that “it is nearly impossible to relegate these descriptions to non-Christians.”
Even opponents of the Saved and Lost argument admit that it is the most natural interpretation if the Hebrews 6:4-6 passage is considered on its own. However, by looking at the pericope in the context of the whole of Scripture, they conclude that the warning passages must refer to people who are very aware of Christianity and have experienced some of its benefits, but were never true believers themselves. This interpretation allows the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints to stand. Wayne Grudem supports this Pseudo-Christian interpretation, and claims that although the terms used in Hebrews 6:4-5 to describe the audience could apply to true believers, they could also “apply to people who were not yet Christians but who had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.” Philip Hughes concurs, pointing to New Testament figures such as Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus, and Demas as individuals to whom the descriptive terms could be applied but were not true believers.
Although the Saved and Lost and Pseudo-Christian viewpoints are the two dominant interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 and represent the vast majority of scholars and commentators, there are a few minority views as well, and we will now turn our attention to a brief description of these.
First is the Hypothetical interpretation, which suggests that the Hebrew writer is giving a description of what would happen if a true believer were to fall away, even though such an event could never really occur since true believers cannot fall away. This theory is supported by Thomas Hewitt, among others, who says it “has much in its favor and little against it. It in no way contradicts other passages of Scripture, neither is it in conflict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.” Although this view takes the apparent Christianity of the audience at face value and does not contradict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, it is not without problems. As David B. Armistead points out, “A severe warning against an impossible case serves no purpose whatsoever….” Philip Hughes goes even further in criticizing this view, saying that for the author to speak of an impossible scenario as if it could truly happen to his readers in order to frighten them into being better Christians would be “subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle.”
Another minority perspective on Hebrews 6:4-6 is Verlyn D. Verbrugge’s Community interpretation. Verbrugge claims that the metaphor of the thorn-producing land that is cursed by God in Hebrews 6:7-8 forms the basis for verses 4-6, and is itself based on the Old Testament passage of Isaiah 5:1-7, which is directed toward the nation of Israel. Against this backdrop, Verbrugge concludes that the Hebrew writer is primarily concerned with addressing the “covenant community and not the individual child of God. Thus when we read of the falling away and of God’s subsequent rejection, it is rejection of a community that is in focus.” Basically, Verbrugge manages to avoid the implications of the Saved and Lost view by arguing that the author of Hebrews is not addressing individual believers, but rather a local body of the church. Although critics of this view applaud Verbrugge’s recognition of the emphasis the Hebrew writer puts on the Christian community, they ultimately think he ignores the even stronger emphasis placed on the individual, and also find his argument of Hebrews 6:7-8 directly relating to Isa. 5:1-7 to be unconvincing.
A final perspective to consider is the Christian Maturity interpretation, which suggests that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers and warns not against apostasy, but a “decisive refusal to mature” in the Christian life. Proponents of this view disagree about the exact consequences of failing to heed the warning that the Hebrew writer gives, but they agree that eternal salvation is not at stake. Drawing largely on the metaphor of the thorn-infested ground in Hebrews 6:7-8, Thomas K. Oberholtzer sees eschatological implications, and argues that the result of continued immaturity in the Hebrews audience is not a loss of eternal salvation, but a loss of rewards in the millennial kingdom. Randall C. Gleason sees extensive parallels between the believers described in Hebrews 6:4-5 and the Israelites who refused to enter the land of Canaan at Kadesh-Barnea, and argues that the immature Christians of Hebrews 6 run the risk of physical death, possibly during the impending destruction of Jerusalem (Gleason assumes that Hebrews was written to Jewish believers living “not far from Jerusalem.”). Both veins of the Christian Maturity view are rejected by other scholars for multiple reasons.
Conclusion: A Real Warning of Apostasy
The entire debate over the proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 is centered around the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Those who reject this doctrine have little problem accepting the passage at face value, while those who affirm it are compelled to conclude either that the passage does not refer to true believers, or that the consequences of apostasy must be something other than the loss of eternal salvation.
With the three minority views all possessing significant problems, it seems that the best interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 must come from one of the two dominant views, which disagree about the audience to which the passage was written. Although the Pseudo-Christian view has been popular for centuries and makes some good arguments, it also approaches the passage with too much presupposition and from the outset tries to make it mean something other than what it seems to mean. The Saved and Lost interpretation, on the other hand, takes the Hebrew writer at his word, and therefore seems to be the best. After all, what more could the author have said to show that he was writing to true believers than what he already did?
Roger Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation; Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney presented by his Former Students, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 355.
Alan Mugridge, “Warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exegetical and Theological Study,” Reformed Theological Review 46 (September-December 1987): 77.
Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 126.
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril of Apostasy,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 144-45.
William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47A (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 142; David B. Armistead, “The ‘Believer’ who Falls Away: Heb 6:4-6 and the Perseverance of the Saints,” Stulos Theological Journal 4, no. 2 (1996): 140-44.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990): 149.
Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (Spring 1992) 43.
All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.
Grant R. Osborne, “A Classical Arminian View,” in Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 112.
Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge & Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 137; Armistead, 144.
Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960): 110-11.
Verlyn D. Verbrugge, “Towards a New Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6,” Calvin Theological Journal 15, no.1 (April 1980): 62-65.
McKnight, 53-54; Robert A. Peterson, “Apostasy in the Hebrews Warning Passages,” Presbyterion 34, no.1 (Spring 2008): 27-29.
Randall C. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (January-March 1998): 81-82.
Thomas K. Oberholtzer, “The Warning Passages in Hebrews Part 3 (of 5 parts): The Thorn-Infested Ground in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (July-September 1988): 319-28.
Randall C. Gleason, “A Moderate Reformed View,” in Bateman, 337-40.
Grudem, 151-52; Brent Nongbri, “A Touch of Condemnation in a Word of Exhortation: Apocalyptic Language and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Novum Testamentum 45, no. 3 (2003): 268-69; Grant R. Osborne, “Classical Arminian Response,” in Bateman, 378-95; Buist M. Fanning, “Classical Reformed Response,” in Bateman, 396-414.